No Going Back: The New Normal
Adjusting to life in streets with fewer cars (and keeping it that way)
In Part 2 of our regular series 'Most Liveable Place', Alex Nurse looks at the effect of lockdown on our once car-filled streets and asks can we really go back to how we lived before?
‘It’s life, Jim: but not as we know it.’
Wherever you are in the world, the Coronavirus and our response to it has turned our world on its head. Almost every country has gone into some form of lockdown, where schools and shops are closed, and people are working from home as much as they can to stop the spread of the disease, and when you are allowed out, social distancing has become the new norm.
In the UK, at the time of writing, we’re entering our 4th week of lockdown. Your mileage may vary depending on where you’re reading from, but here the Government have set out four reasons why you can leave the house:
To shop for essential items (i.e. groceries)
Any medical need, and to care for elderly/vulnerable relatives
To travel to/from an essential form of work
To take one form of exercise a day
Whilst other countries have placed time and distance measures on their exercise provisions, the UK’s underpinning lockdown legislation is unhelpfully vague, and guidance from ministers and bodies like British Cycling remains just that: guidance. Though this has led to a whirlpool of debate about what constitutes safe and appropriate exercise, we’re not going to get bogged down in that here.
The upshot of the exercise legislation – - is that whilst we have seen cars empty from the roads over which they have long held dominion, we have seen walkers, runners and cyclists flood onto our streets en masse. This has undoubtedly been helped by a period of warm and sunny weather which has seen people keen to take the opportunity to escape their four walls for a brief outside respite.
UK Transport Use. Source: UK Government Department for Transport
If you go to any park with a circular route, or stand near any ‘main’ road for 5 minutes or so, you’ll see all manner of machines go by. There are plenty of cyclists on their racing bikes, but there are also all manner of wonderful creaky and squeaky machines which have been fished out of the backs of sheds and garages, dusted down, (occasionally) oiled up, and taken for a spin. At the same time, local bike shops, long heralded as the often unsung heroes of bike communities up and down the country have been designated an essential service in the lockdown legislation, and have remained open for business, prioritising servicing bikes for keyworkers, while also seeing a roaring trade in new sales as people want to get outside when they can.
Sefton Park, Liverpool - minus the cars
The struggle between local bike stores and the behemoth online retailers is a well-trodden path, but amidst the lockdown, the LBSs seem to be coming out on top, with Barney Swinnerton, of in Stoke-on-Trent telling us how, “working hard with our store presence, workshop and customer service and our online store” has seen “more people trust and utilise these things from us”. This is something seemingly seen across the board, and Ste Stuart, from in Liverpool, told us how:
"In the last two weeks, we've sold out of entry-level bikes as people want to avoid public transport. It's not just key workers, people from all walks of life have been buying bikes to get outside and go for a ride. We're getting a big delivery so we'll be well-stocked with entry-level bikes again soon. We basically said to the suppliers send us all you can".
Picton Cycles, Liverpool
Barney Swinnerton agrees, telling us how “Our workshop is fully booked for new bikes and servicing now for just over a week in advance which is becoming more of a regular case each week”. Both stores spoke of how they are working hard to “stay open with restrictions for the purpose of keeping people on their bikes, whether it be for their daily exercise or as their main mode of transport for commuting or when people need to get supplies for home with public transport now posing its own contagion risks”.
All of this is fantastic to see, and you could almost be forgiven for thinking we’ve somehow fallen through a portal into an alternate universe where we made the same transport choices as the Dutch or the Danish.
However, as great as this is there is one flaw. The sheer amount of our public space that we have given over to cars, and to now-empty roads, has seen those people taking their exercise languishing on the sidelines. For runners and walkers, in particular, it is often entirely impossible to observe a 2m social distance on footpaths which are barely that wide at all. This, in turn, has led to finger-pointing, rather than missing the obvious point – why have we got so little space to begin with?!
More empty streets in South Liverpool
At present, much of the news debate is being given over to our ‘exit strategy’ – how do we get back to business as usual? However, at the same time, there are many who are arguing that we should learn from how life has changed under the lockdown to build a new usual.
For years, we’ve been toiling with how to engage with Active Travel. To create strategies that get more people cycling. That get cars off the road. Almost overnight, we’ve seen that this world can happen, as city centre roads are completely deserted, and traffic on the wider network is at its lowest since 1955.
In the US, some cities such as Oakland have taken the lead and closed off some roads exclusively for exercise, so runners and cyclists can observe social distancing, whilst . Sluggishly at first, the UK is starting to follow suit, with Brighton closing some of its seafront roads, and Merseyside opening its Mersey Tunnels to keyworkers on bicycles (something usually restricted to Sundays, in Winter). But we can go further. Local councils already had powers – known as Traffic Restraining Orders (TROs) – to limit traffic and close roads – something they normally use for marathons etc. However, the Government have now , shortening the times for consultation, and making them easier and quicker to implement.
Deserted. Minimal motorised traffic on normally busy 'A' roads
There is movement here, but now our councils should be able to go further and quicker.
Already there is talk about which of our now-deserted roads should stay that way. As much as the talk is of lifting the lockdown, for some time it is not going to be business as usual. Social distancing will remain in place. Public transport will probably remain undesirable and things like riding your bike to work will become more appealing. We have spent decades trying to redesign our streets to reduce congestion, improve air quality, and make space for others, and the lockdown has presented us an opportunity to do something simple: just keep some of the car lanes and keep it as public space for everyone else to use all the time.
As we’ll see in an upcoming blog – that can be as easy as some concrete blocks, or some cones.
The coronavirus will, in many ways leave a grim scar on our country, and many others. But at the same time, it has revealed that there are ways that we might be able to change our lives for the better.
There are many things that we will want back as soon as possible. But other things that we might like to keep that way.
Dr Alex Nurse is a lecturer in planning at the Department of Geography and Planning, University of Liverpool.
This section will be regularly updated with links to other articles relating to more places becoming accessible to pedestrians and cyclists: